Behind her mask is a deadly secret...
The powerful head of the covert mercenary organization The Committee, Isobel Lambert is a sleek, sophisticated professional who comes into contact with some of the most dangerous people in the world. But beneath Isobel's cool exterior a ghost exists, haunting her with memories of another life...a life that ended long ago.
But Isobel's past and present are about to collide when Serafin, mercenary, assassin and the most dangerous man in the world, makes a deal with The Committee. Seventeen years ago Isobel shot him and left him for dead. Now it looks as if he's tracked her down for revenge. But Isobel knows all too well that looks can be deceiving...and that's what she's counting on to keep her cover in this international masquerade of murder.
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Madame Isobel Lambert was exhausted. It had been a draining weekend in the Lake Districtshe'd played with her hosts'obstreperous children, gone on long hikes, eaten too much rich food, drank too much red wine, wrestled with her conscience and killed two men. All that without a cigarette. She was not in a good mood.
There was no question that the men had deserved to die. Manuel Kupersmith and Jorge Sullivan were the lowest of the low, and beyond the reach of traditional justice. Drug dealers with a taste for torture and a well-financed sympathy for terrorists, they'd covered their tracks too well. If she'd had to, she would have put a bullet in each of their dark, twisted brains.
As it was, she'd managed to sabotage their car, a nice, antiseptic kill. While she spent a social weekend with a member of parliament and his young family, it had been easy enough to wander past the inn where the two men had taken up residence, easy enough to sneak into the garage while the two were in bed. She knew a great deal about cars, and if her calculations were correct, the brakes would give out at the steep curve above the Lohan Cliffs and the car would end up on the rocks below. If the brakes failed too soon the car might hit a pedestrian; too late and they could run into the busy traffic of the neighboring town. Not something she'd be happy about, but a risk worth taking.
In the end, her timing had been perfect. As her hosts drove her to the train station in Lohan Downs they'd passed the police cars and the cordoned-off section of road, and her host had made important noises about road safety as Isobel breathed a silent sigh of relief. It was done.
She had the Sunday Times with her for the train ride back to London, and she finished the crossword puzzle in record time. Her flat in Bloomsbury was still and quiet as she let herself in, and she stripped off her clothes and headed straight for the shower, calm and impassive as always, ignoring her shaking hands.
She waited for the water to get hot, then stepped beneath it. And only then did she cry, silently, steadily. Not for the men. But for her own lost soul.
Peter Madsen looked up when Madame Lambert walked into the office the next morning, a cardboard cup of coffee in one hand, a newspaper under her arm. He had the same paper open in front of him.
"Shame about the car accident near the Lohan Cliffs," he said evenly, watching her out of the icy blue eyes that saw too much.
"Indeed," she said calmly. He would have been the one to do it, but he'd pulled back from that kind of work. Everyone reached their limit when it came to wet workeither they burned out or made one too many mistakes. Peter was deskbound, not because of his bad leg but because he'd seen and done too much. His focus had changed to his American wife and the semblance of a normal life, and Isobel wasn't going to do anything to change that, even though she could.
But she was running out of people she could trust to do what was necessary and nothing more. In the three years since she'd taken over Harry Thomason's role as head of the Committee, she'd lost three effective operatives. Bastien had disappeared into the mountains of North Carolina with his wife and family, Peter was no longer on active duty, and Takashi O'Brien was dividing his time between Tokyo and Los Angeles. He could still be counted on to do what was necessary, but Isobel was not the kind of woman who made other people do things she herself wouldn't. And Taka had a new life as wellhe didn't need fresh blood on his hands.
Morrison in Germany, MacGowan in Central America were still working ops, and the Thai mission was almost complete. Takashi's young cousin, Hiromasa Shinoda, was due to arrive any day now, and if he was half as good as Taka they'd be in decent shape. Though the learning curve was steep, and Isobel knew nothing about young Mr. Shinoda except that Taka recommended him, which was good enough. But he wouldn't be ready for solo assignments for quite a while, and she didn't know who she could assign to train him.
She hated not knowing things. "You look rattled," Peter said, his voice cool and devoid of sympathy, as she needed it to be.
"I'm fine. It's just been awhile. Any sign of Taka's cousin?"
"Not yet. You had some calls."
There was something about the tone of his voice that twisted her stomach into a small knot of dread. She turned her impassive face back to him. "I imagine I did. Harry Thomason, I suppose?"
There were only the two of them in the Kensington offices of Spence-Pierce Financial Consultants, Ltd., their very effective cover. Anyone who managed to get through to them had every business doing so. More mundane matters were conducted at a distance.
Isobel took the leather club chair opposite Peter's desk, crossing her legs. Good legs for a woman in her sixties. Good legs for a woman in her forties. Not even bad for someone her real age.
"You may as well tell me." She pried the lid off the coffee and took a drink. "I've never known you to spare my tender feelings."
Peter laughed, a sound she was slowly getting used to. In the first ten years she'd known him she didn't think she'd ever heard him laugh. "Sensitivity was never my forte," he said. "Thomason wants to know what you're going to do about the situation with Serafin."
"Thomason can blow himself," Isobel said sweetly.
"Who have we got on him?"
"No one. Bastien did some of the preliminary work, as did I. But things stabilized and we had more important situations to deal with."
"Serafin," she said. "The Butcher." Her day had gone from bad to worse. "I thought he was just going to fade away like Qaddafi."
"No such luck. Only the good die young, and Josef Serafin doesn't fit that category."
She glanced longingly toward her office. She could go in there, close the door behind her and put her head down on the massive teak desk. Maybe bang it a few times for good measure. Peter was watching her, reading her mind. That was the problem with working with someone like Peterhe was smart enough and intuitive enough to know what she was thinking at all times.
She wasn't going anywhere. "Fill me in," she said. "Tell me we're finally going to get to kill him. Please."
"I'm afraid not. We're going to have to save the son of a bitch's life."
"I hate this job," Isobel said, leaning back and closing her eyes for a moment. She gripped the coffee tightly. If her hand revealed even the faintest tremor, Peter would see it. "Details. Everything we know about Serafin, and why in God's name we have to keep him alive. Maybe I'll figure a way around it."
"I doubt it. He's got nine lives. Even Bastien wasn't able to take him down when he was ordered to."
"I forgot about that. Details," she said again, wearily.
"Josef Serafin, somewhere in his early forties. It's anybody's guess where he was bornprobably in a slum in Latin America. He first appeared on the scene in the late nineteen-eighties, part of an arms smuggling operation to the Congo. He branched out, became part of a drug cartel out of Colombia, just missing the big takedown in Cartagena, moved on and hired his services out as an assassin. He worked with the Shining Path in Peru, the Red Brigade in Italy, he'd worked in Croatia, Somalia, North Korea. Just about everywhere in the world where bad things happen. He's moved away from crime lords to politics, serving as second in command to three of the most ruthless dictators in recent history. He's managed to escape, unscathed, right before their governments came crashing down, and for the last five years he's been reported to be working in Africa, overseeing ethnic cleansing and political purging."
"Lovely man," Isobel murmured. "And we're supposed to save his life?"
Peter didn't bother to answer her question. "He's hiding out in Morocco for the time being, but we don't know how long that will last. He's got more enemies than bin Laden. Fouad Assawi was his most recent employer, but he was killed, part of the reason Serafin's on the run. Vladimir Busanovich is probably the biggest danger. He holds a grudge, and the last time Serafin worked for him he screwed up. Apparently something went wrong with the last round of executions, and at least three hundred of Busanovich's worst enemies escaped, right under Serafin's nose. Busanovich is not a tolerant man."
"And we're saving Serafin because ?"
"Because of the intel he brings with him. He knows just about all there is to know about the major players in the world of terrorism, and he's willing to trade that information for safe passage out of Morocco. That's where we come in."
She could always say no. She was the titular head of the Committeein the end her word was law. Orders were handed down by a shadowy group of old men, the actual "committee," and her nemesis and former boss, the newly knighted Harry Thomason, had joined their ranks. She'd like to blame this mess on Thomason, but then, his major drawback had been his readiness to eliminate anyone on the slightest pretext, and Josef Serafin should have been dealt with long ago. Thomason himself had ordered hits on Serafin half a dozen times, but no one, not even Bastien or Peter, had ever been able to get close to him.
Until now. Mistakes happenedSerafin wouldn't be seeking asylum if he hadn't screwed up his deadly orders.
"So what's the plan?" she said, smoothing her perfect blond hair back from her face. "And don't tell me you don't have oneI know you too well. Who are we going to send? We're shorthanded right now, and Genevieve would cut my throat if I tried to send you."
He flashed another of those rare, unexpected smiles that still managed to surprise her. "And then she'd cut mine. I thought of Taka, but he's still cleaning up the cult mess in Japan. Besides, we haven't been given a choice in the matter."
She raised an eyebrow, waiting for it. "They want you to go," he said. "In fact, it's a direct order. You're to get to Morocco, make contact with Serafin, extract him and bring him to London, where we can debrief him."
Peter shrugged. "He's got to have millions salted away in some international account. He's spent the last twenty years or so selling his services to the highest bidderhe'd be well paid for it. Once we get the information from him he'll be able to disappear. With our help." He didn't look any happier about it than she felt.
"Maybe he could have a little accident once he's been debriefed," she said. "Accidents do happen, you know."
"Yes, they do," Peter said evenly. "I can see to it, if you'd like."
She didn't meet his eyes. Never have someone do what you aren't willing to do yourself, she thought. "Let's see if we can even bring him out alive. Do we know what the hell he looks like nowadays?"
"We've got some grainy surveillance photos from his time in Bosnia eight years ago, but they don't show much. Just a tall man with a beard and sunglasses. We've got a couple of recent descriptions from people who escaped ahead of the carnage. I'll put them together and see what we can come up with."
"You and your damn computers," Isobel said. Since Peter had come out of the field, he'd spent his time playing with technologyin all, a less emotionally damaging way to help the cause. Not that she would have thought Peter Madsen had emotions. Until she'd met his wife.
"See what you can come up with," Isobel said.
"How long have we known each other?"
Peter's question was unexpected, and Isobel almost dropped her guard. "Close to ten years by now. Why?"
"You look tired."
"Are you telling me I'm looking my age?" she said, her voice light.
"I don't know what the hell your age is," he grumbled. "You could be forty and you could be sixty."
"Or I could be twenty or eighty," she said. "I take very good care of myself. And I've had the very best of plastic surgeons. Why are you asking?"
"Because sooner or later this gets to be too much.
You and I both know it. And I'd like some warning if you're going to burn out."
"You think I'm getting too old for the game? I'll let you know when I'm contemplating retirement, if you're that eager for advancement. At this point I have a lot of good years left."
"Bastien retired in his thirties."
"So he did. And I expect if it weren't for me you'd be gone, as well. You don't really want my job at all, do you?"
"I've seen what it does to people. Turns them into monsters like Thomason, or comes close to breaking them, like "
"Like me," she said.
"Like Bastien. Like me. Like you."
She rose with her usual perfect grace. "Tell you what, Peter," she said. "Find me a replacement with a conscience. Find yourself one as well. And then I'll quit."